One cannot separate Tlingit history from the land, and it’s never been easier to understand why, with a collaboration between the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and the University of British Columbia.
During Celebration on Thursday afternoon, Nicole Gordon, of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation of Atlin, and Christine Schreyer, assistant professor of anthropology at UBC-Okanagan, presented “Demonstration of Taku River Tlingit First Nation Place Names Map and Website.” The lecture provided background information about the creation of the interactive map and a tutorial on its use.
“One of the things we heard from the community in Atlin is that they wanted their mark on the territory, wanted their names brought back to the maps,” Gordon said. “There isn’t enough indigenous mapping happening for our location.”
For this map, Gordon worked with Schreyer to interview elders about the land and its stories, and also why it was important to have indigenous names on the land.
Information and stories from these interviews are available on the website, both as audio recordings and transcribed, some attached to pinpoints on the map and others on separate pages.
“You know, my mother, when she was alive, she stressed to us boys as we were growing up and throughout the years as we sat and had her tell us stories about our history, she was always of the opinion that the names that our people gave certain places, they gave that name because it had a meaning and that meaning we had to take to heart. And we had to make it a living mandate for us to follow, the markers and what not,” Taku River Tlingit Elder Andrew Johnson said in interviews for the site.
He continued: “When she was alive I used to drive her from Atlin to Whitehorse all the time. Along the way she’d point out the mountains to me and the names that they had and she’d start telling me the story behind that. And it wasn’t until quite a number of times that I started getting the meaning of it and as I started to understand the meaning behind the name, I started really realizing the significance of why we should keep that mountain as a reminder of who we are and what we are suppose to be doing. It’s really important.”
The names describe stories, events, geographical features and important information about migration patterns and seasonal harvests.
Through the interactive map, at trt.geolive.ca, all these elements are brought together in a functional, shareable and educational way.
The map application was developed by UBC associate professor John Corbett as “a flexible and extendable online participatory mapping tool designed to facilitate organizations’ ability to capture, manage and communicate their own spatial data,” according to geolive.ca’s landing page.
The Taku River Tlingit map was populated with names, stories and more by drawing from the knowledge and stories of Tlingit elders.
At its most basic, the map shows the indigenous place names, often shown in clusters, but with its various overlays, the map does much more.
Different map overlays show common fishing spots and camps or places associated with Lingit Kusteeyi (stories) or carvings. With the green pinpoint map overlay, users who have created an account can share favorite places.
Whichever overlay a user chooses, interaction is encouraged. While some maps offer limited interactivity, others offer full interactivity. Each overlay allows users to add comments and upload photos, video or audio. One might share a story or photo, or if the naming of a place is in question, that could also be voiced in the comments.
Another way to interact with the map is to read a story, for example, one by Jackie Williams. The story text will include hyperlinks in blue which, when clicked, will open to the place on the interactive map. Place names include audio pronunciation clips so users can brush up on their Tlingit.
The map is political in a sense, applying the indigenous place names over the land where Western names have been predominantly used since European colonization. It’s also a powerful educational tool and comes with lesson plans designed to meet British Columbia’s standards.
Schreyer said they worked with Atlin students to add their favorite places to the map and said people could add favorite places even if they don’t know the Tlingit name. Other users might be able to contribute their knowledge. They might also suggest nudging the pinpoint over a bit if the location isn’t exact.
The website isn’t the only place where indigenous names are showing up. Part of the project also involves submitting government applications to return place names to their indigenous roots. For example, the former Queen Charlotte Islands have returned to being called Haida Gwaii. And through the BC Department of Recreation and Trails, wooden signs are beginning to include Tlingit names, though one audience member noted that listing the Tlingit name last “creates a system where we’re marginalized” and “an afterthought again.”
For Southeast Alaska, the book “Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land” was brought up as a resource showing indigenous names on the region’s features.
While the Taku River Tlingit map is copyrighted, it’s possible other organizations could work with GeoLive to create similar maps. It’s a possibility anyone hoping to see the continued preservation and revitalization of Tlingit and other indigenous cultures could get behind.
In another interview for the map project, Taku River Tlingit elder Susan Carlick said: “I would love for this generation and future generations of young people to be raised to know those names and to not have to be convinced that it’s not a fairy tale.”
To view the interactive map, visit trt.geolive.ca.